How Student Involvement, Development and Leadership Create Success at Oregon State University
Sheila Evans, in her office at the Adventure Leadership Institute
“It’s like a tandem bicycle,” she said with confidence.
Sheila Evans, the coordinator of the Adventure Leadership Institute, has a lot of strong opinions on student involvement at Oregon State University. And rightfully so- she’s worked at the ALI for 25 years and has guided over hundreds of students on their leadership journey.
“The instructor is in front, and points at the right direction,” Evans said, leaning forward and pointing towards the dim light above her office. “The learner is in the back, not in control of the destination.”
Evans paused to look at a piece of student artwork, a colorful painting, hanging above her cluttered desk. It was made from an old ALI poster by on of Evans’ many students. Her office is a well-loved and frequently visited one. Outdoor gear, cardboard boxes and spare pairs of shoes peek out from every corner, and piles of paper and binders cover the surfaces of the small office.
Evans herself, wearing a bright orange vest and brown boots, is a warm, exciting presence in the ALI. Her devotion to her work and students is apparent- she smiles and waves to everyone that walks past her office window.
“We flip those roles, the student is in the front, deciding their pathway. I provide some power and support,” Evans said, turning away from the painting. “I help with decision making and judgement, reflecting on their experiences to help the learning. I’m willing to take the crash, because that’s an important way of learning. What did we learn from that?”
Evans is one of many staff at OSU involved in teaching students life and leadership skills. With a large emphasis on extracurricular involvement, OSU has hundreds of clubs and organizations on and off campus.
While student life and leadership have always been present at OSU, other universities and colleges around the world are placing more and more emphasis on the importance of student life, according to the European Journal of Education. This is due to a change in mindset- colleges and universities are now trying to appeal to student interests, instead of forcing students to conform to the programs they offer. OSU currently offers many clubs and organizations to students, ranging from Greek life to intramural sports to aquatic zoology. These organizations, while supporting students’ academic and extracurricular interests, can also present challenges.
The shift in mindset surrounding student life is most clearly seen through the studies and analytics surrounding it, according to the European Journal of Education. Universities across the globe are investing time and funds into learning and recording student perceptions. This information is used to plan, change and create different programs specifically for students, giving them a say in their university experience.
An additional way the mindset is seen is in the creation of the programs themselves. Organizations and opportunities are becoming more and more inclusive and customizable. Multiple different positions and ways to become involved are offered, allowing students of all backgrounds and abilities to participate in student life organizations. An example on campus is the Student Experience Center, a recently-constructed building containing a multitude of departments and organizations all based around student interests. This center was designed to keep student engagement high.
Simon Brundage, in his office at ASOSU.
Simon Brundage is the president of Associated Students of OSU, also known as student government. He works with administrators through creating programs and providing student input into large decisions, such as university budgeting and implementing rules. Brundage also works with other organizations on campus to see if their needs are being met, and to assist with any projects they are working on. Additionally, he works with and meets with a variety of students, especially student leaders.
“I found a lot of different leadership different opportunities across campus,” Brundage said from his bright corner office in the Student Experience Center. “A lot of students take a lot of initiative to take involvement on campus. We have a ton of great student leaders.”
Melissa Yamamoto, in her office in the Student Leadership department.
Melissa Yamamoto, the assistant director of the Leadership Development center, has been involved in student life since her time as an undergrad, where she got her start as a resident advisor. She believes active student involvement leads to higher student success.
“When students are involved in things, they develop relationships with other students and faculty. It’s people they wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Yamamoto said. “They’re learning outside of the classroom, and doing experiential learning.”
Through teaching classes, creating and supervising programs, and leading outdoor and leadership workshops, Evans has met and helped hundreds of OSU students.
“I got into working with adventure programs just through interest, and what fascinated me was seeing the development of college age people, it’s a very rich time for development,” Evans said. “I saw the potential to use my education background to work in that development side.”
According to Yamamoto, the growth of the students is one of the most rewarding parts of her work.
“I love being a part of the growth and seeing the change over time as they feel more empowered and confident. It’s a really positive experience,” Yamamoto said.
Yamamoto also sees a change in the way students perceive their experiences, especially those involving leadership.
“Leadership can look like so many things, it’s a behavior, it’s about action, it’s not about being crowned with a title,” Yamamoto said. “We develop people’s thoughts about themselves and how they lead. Hopefully, it gives them a sense of confidence to make changes in the world.”
Academics, while important, only go so far for student development. Student involvement and leadership are valuable for personal development, such as building confidence, according to Brundage.
“Leadership develops you more as a person. It’s one of those things where academics shape how you think, but leadership shapes who you are,” Brundage said.
Leadership and academics can intertwine, however. According to The Journal of Higher Education, leadership roles and even general student involvement can directly lead to higher grade point averages. This is not limited to involvement in academic organizations, however. Any challenging experience can teach valuable skills that can be applied to academics.
“You challenge how you normally approach situations. You have to challenge yourself,” Brundage said. “Even if it’s completely uncomfortable, you have to shake it off and do what you can.”
Evans also believes challenges in student involvement organizations play a large role in personal development.
“We develop that risk awareness and good judgement in those scenarios that can be transferred to other scenarios,” Evans said.
According to an article published in Higher Education about university transitions, student communities and involvement are key to helping students feel at home at their school. It also increases the odds they will stay in school, according to Yamamoto. The increase in creating and offering student life opportunities, according to the European Journal of Education, is due to this fact. Students are more likely to stay at a school where their interests and needs beyond academics are met, and are more likely to transfer to another institution if they are not.
“Students involved on campus tend to stay and to graduate at a higher rate,” Yamamoto said.
However, it’s not all fun and games.
Concern over the mental and physical health of college students has grown in recent years, as academic programs become more and more demanding and expensive. As students struggle to keep up with their schoolwork and financial obligation, time for student involvement diminishes, leading students to either add too much to their plate or avoid student involvement all together. According to the European Journal of Education, students need to find a balance between their academics, social lives, involvement, and work in order to keep all areas thriving and their health on track.
“It’s possible to get over involved. Just being involved too deeply in something can take away from their balance,” Yamamoto said. “Some students take on too many things.”
According to Brundage, he had only slept six hours in the past two days at the time of his interview. He explained that he’s lost time that should have been devoted to other things, like his academics and sleep.
“I haven’t been able to study as much as I wanted to. I’ve committed so much time to extracurricular activities,” Brundage said.
Students need to learn how to balance their schedules and lives in order to be healthy and successful. They need to practice organization and commitment as they progress through their academic, social and extracurricular activities. According to Evans, this takes time to learn, but college is the place to do it.
“What it comes down to is a student’s readiness,” Evans said. “They will find ways to cope and take care of their mental and physical health. Students are still learning their preparation.”
Melissa organizing a project with a student.
Yamamoto’s work with student leaders involves discussions about the balance. Her students need to have their balance and commitment figured out, so they can share their methods with their mentees. They consult with Yamamoto when they struggle with their schedules and health, and she is more than willing to figure it out with them.
“I ask them about classes and balancing academics, their jobs and personal lives. I want to show them I care about them as people,” Yamamoto said. “I don’t want their job to be a burden. Sometimes academics have to take precedence.”
Another key aspect to leadership, according to Evans, is the reasons behind the involvement. Students should only pursue things that are valuable to them, whether it be personally, professionally, or academically. Whether or not they get what they want from the experience- such as a leadership role or networking opportunity- students should consider what they learned from the process and find value in that.
“Be honest with yourself about your motivations for doing whatever you are doing,” Evans said. “The journey is often more valuable than the destination.”
Yamamoto believes students should consider the level of involvement they want in each organization and activity. She recommends trying everything that seems interesting, and then cutting it down to what matters most to the student based on their values and goals. She also notes that the more involved students become, the more opportunities will be presented to them. Yamamoto believes that students should remember that it’s okay to turn down these opportunities if they just don’t work with the student’s goals and schedule.
“We often suggest maybe two or three things at a time, and really think about the level of involvement,” Yamamoto said. “It’s good to expose yourself to things you haven’t before, but then decide what you want to keep. And consider how it helps you.”
For students looking to get involved, Yamamoto recommends considering what experiences students need for their future career.
“If you want to be a teacher, break it down. What do you need to know to be able to do that? You need to be able to do public speaking. You need to be able to manage conflict, and have difficult conversations,” Yamamoto said. “Now where can you get those experiences?”
Brundage recommends reaching out to himself or other student leaders.
“I’m always happy to meet with students,” Brundage said. “A lot of student leaders would echo that. They’re happy to help you get involved.”
Evans encourages students to look for a mentor.
“Find a good reflection and feedback person who you can talk things over,” Evans said. “Someone who won’t judge, but ask questions to make you think hard about what you are experiencing.”
Lastly, Evans believes students should always remember their goal is personal development.
“Our students understand the investment, that all of these programs are really about their development,” Evans said. “When you know it’s about development, you bring a whole new dimension than what’s just on the surface.”
For Brundage, the rewarding nature of his work overpowers the stress and the sleep deprivation. He loves every minute spent advocating for and working with the student body at OSU.
“There are going to be sacrifices,” Brundage said. “I’m okay with that, I know that the work we do here is meaningful and makes a difference.”
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